News of the death of Boa Sr in India’s Andaman Islands—and with her the Bo language, of which Boa was the last known speaker—has focused media attention on humanity’s fast-vanishing endangered languages. The loss comes on the eve of the tenth anniversary of UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day this Sunday.
“We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations,” writes K. David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College and one of the scientific leaders of the Enduring Voices project, for the BBC’s website. “But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity—epics, myths, rituals—that celebrate and interpret our existence.
“All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. … Species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them.”
For the last few years, David has traveled with Living Tongues Institute Colleague Greg Anderson and photographer and National Geographic Fellow Chris Rainier to language hotspots—places with relatively high linguistic diversity or unique language families—producing dictionaries and recording songs, stories, and other oral traditions of indigenous last speakers of threatened languages.
Where invited to do so, the Enduring Voices team is also helping indigenous speakers revitalize and maintain their threatened languages, and training community members to use Language Technology Kits so that they can continue to document their verbal, cultural legacy.
Follow the team’s efforts and see more photos from their 2009 expedition to Papua New Guinea on the Enduring Voices website. Watch the award-winning film The Linguists about David and Greg’s work. Or read more about Boa Sr and the extinct Bo language on NatGeo News Watch and on Time.com.
Photo of Boa Sr (top) by Anvita Abbi courtesy Survival International; photo of K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson interviewing Ganabi Sebo, a speaker of the Foe language, in Papua New Guinea by Chris Rainier